A New Adventure: Taking on ADHD diet

When my homeschool year wrapped up, I embraced the summer break with the resolve to see if we could get to the bottom of some of our health issues through diet. It’s been a roller-coaster two years: two of my kids diagnosed with ADHD and some serious toddler issues, my husband had two back surgeries, a month-long bout of stomach bug (which ended in my toddler hospitalized for three days for dehydration), my husband’s second kidney stone, plus my own mysterious cramping and hormone concerns. Just for myself, I’d experimented with diet and realized I had very extreme issues with milk. Even trace amounts in baking goods would have me doubled-over in about 15 to 20 minutes. So with all that circling around in my head, I really wanted to give diet-change a serious look. We went gluten-free in June, and by July we tackled the ADHD elimination diet called Feingold.

I began keeping a detailed journal of everything everyone ate and daily notes on behaviors and moods.

What the ADHD diet eliminates

To start with, all dyes and preservatives and artificial anything are eliminated. This includes the hidden, non-listed preservatives. For instance, a package might be labeled “preservative free, no additives,” but the packaging has been sprayed with the preservative so the food is still contaminated even though it doesn’t have to be listed as an ingredient. Or, the product may list “corn, oil, salt” but the harmful preservative is in the oil that was used (but that doesn’t have to be listed either.) Bottom-line, Feingold does detailed research, sending out questionnaires to companies to find out which products truly are clean. I’ve learned the hard way, their list is pretty right on.

This also includes shampoos, toothpastes, hand soap, chapstick, laundry detergent, etc. I thought we were doing okay with dyes until I started looking more closely. You would’t believe where these things hide. Even fresh produce at restaurants is often injected with dyes to make them look brighter and fresher. Medicines, vitamins, and supplements are another surprising culprit. Again, no wonder my kids were having trouble.

Next the diet eliminates certain fresh fruits and vegetables that have been, from vast experience, shown to be problematic because of something called Salicylates, natural pesticides that plants produce to ward off bugs and disease. Even though it is natural, some people are extremely sensitive: tomatoes, grapes, apples, berries, cucumbers, almonds, coffee are some chief offenders. Some of these can be potentially be added back into a person’s diet once the key-offenders are found.

But the core of the diet is keeping a journal, making notes of everything, and watching for the patterns that surface. I’ve been blown away. And because I knew from personal experience how fast a reaction can happen, I could see my kids’ moods and behaviors shift just as quickly after eating certain foods.

How long does the ADHD diet take

A long time. It feels like an eternity. We’ve been doing this for 9 weeks, and we are not yet where I want to be though I’ve definitely seen progress and made connections. This is not for the faint of heart. I’ve read many articles that say you can’t treat ADHD with diet, and that specifically Feingold is only 1% effective or “outmoded.” And here’s why I think they say that: it’s stinking’ hard! This is all or nothing: no exceptions. This is not “give it a try for 2 weeks and see.” This is life-altering, leaving status-quo forever. There is no dabbling in this. It’s jump in with both feet. And no lie, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I spent 4 hours on my first shopping trip and did a lot of crying those first few weeks. It seemed impossible.

Also, it gets worse before it gets better. I couldn’t have done this without wonderful moms on the Facebook groups telling me to hang in there and helping me trouble-shoot. The detox of all the crap leaving their little systems is akin to a drug addict going through withdrawal. It’s ugly. But here’s how I knew to stick it out. While I’m thankful for medicine to help us through this transition time, I was always baffled why some days the meds seemed to work, some days it seemed to be too much, and some days it didn’t work at all. Now, it all makes sense, depending on what they ate and what their bodies were dealing with.

What I have learned from the ADHD diet

I’ve learned my kids have three categories of reactions: aggression and violence (corn, corn starch, corn syrup is awful for this); nasty, mouthy, catty remarks and general moodiness (dyes and hidden preservatives, also some salicylates for us, and high-sulfur foods for my daughter); and just plain impulsive off-the-wall silliness, as in what is typically thought of as ADHD (fruit and salicylates, our first hint before it gets really ugly). Note: Everyone is different; the triggers for my kids may not necessarily be the same as someone else’s, though there are often similarities.

I’ve learned that, since cutting my own salicylate consumption, my daily migraines are gone (I only had two headaches last month. That’s it!) The ringing in my ears disappeared when I switched from almond milk to rice milk (almonds are a salicylate). I’ve learned that I can have a few of these fruits and veggies in small amounts and not in the same day, limiting the number I eat in a week.

I’ve learned that bananas are gassed with a corn-based spray to make them ripen faster, causing severe tantrums in my toddler (biting, pinching, and scratching himself; screaming and kicking on the floor; throwing furniture; and other extreme stuff). And that he is back to his happy, easy-going self when I watch what he eats. Also, diet-cheats caused potty accidents almost without exception.

I’ve learned to bake everything. This is huge for me. I hated baking. But going gluten free, milk free, corn free, pretty much left me with no other alternative. And I’ve learned that I really enjoy baking, and my bread machine.

I’ve learned that all the “I could never” excuses, are really just that—excuses. And the Lord has taken all of my “I could never” statements and made me eat them, literally.

I’ve learned simplicity. As complex as these changes are, I’ve learned to keep meals simple and uncomplicated. And they are still delicious. I’ve learned to pack lunches and snacks for everything. I’ve learned you find new favorites. I’ve learned diet changes don’t have to be isolating.

I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a hard journey, but an unforgettable one. And yes, it’s been totally worth it.

Curious about Feingold? Here’s a great ebook pdf that will give you an overview of what’s involved. And if you have questions, I’d love to be there for you and answer all that I can. I know this is a tough road with lots of judgement and misunderstanding, no matter what route you choose. No judgement here; we’re all just doing the best we can for the kiddos we love.